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I draw the attention of the House to my interests, particularly that of being chair of the 5Rights Foundation.
We know that a person’s trajectory is largely defined by the circumstances of their birth and that prevention and early intervention are more effective than policies driven by headlines and voter frustrations. This should put children at the top of the policy agenda but, while jiggling a baby for the camera is a well-worn meme of the campaigning politician, the fact remains that children have no electoral capital, and this gracious Speech, like those preceding it, reflects their lack of political power.
Nowhere is that truer than in the digital world. Like others, I welcome the online harms Bill but I am concerned by the shifting language that prioritises the burden on business rather than the welfare of children. Almost every aspect of a young person’s life is mediated by devices and services that impact, both beneficially and problematically, on their life chances. Children are more vulnerable to the risks associated with profiling: behavioural advertising, abuses of health and education data, gaming, gambling, bullying, self-harm, anxiety, identity fraud, unwanted contact and unwanted content. We are in the grip of an anti-vax movement that results in children having measles. Children are vulnerable to a system that fails to separate fact from fiction. Even this morning we saw reports that one-third of all searches on Google to buy a teething toy featured potentially dangerous products. As Professor Sonia Livingstone says,
“children are the canaries in the coal mine for threats to all”.
Other noble Lords have asked when we might see a Bill, but I ask the Minister when, in her estimation, parents, teachers and children—to whom successive Secretaries of State have made repeated promises—can reasonably expect the online harms Bill to be law? I also ask whether the teams in DCMS and the Home Office will remain at current strength or be reduced or in any way downgraded until that time? While I very much welcome the commitment to high-speed broadband, can the Minister confirm whether we are to get an online harms Bill before broadband rollout? If we do not, we will exacerbate the problems rather than deliver the desired benefits for children.
I shall briefly address three urgent matters that cannot wait for an online harms Bill. First, the Federal Trade Commission is undertaking a review of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA. For those who do not know, COPPA is responsible for 13 being the de facto age of adulthood online. COPPA leaves children aged 13 to 17 with no specific protections and is so poorly upheld that the sector routinely engages with tens of millions of children aged under 13 on services designed for adults. The review could and should put in place protections for all children aged under 18 wherever they are online, but instead a powerful tech lobby proposes to weaken it further. I would be grateful to know what steps the UK Government are taking to ensure that children in the United Kingdom do not inherit a US law that may undermine the considerable efforts we are making here to improve our own laws.
Secondly, there is the plan of Facebook and others to implement end-to-end encryption, which has been widely condemned as a disaster for the global effort to prevent the spread of child sexual abuse material. Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the problem by characterising privacy as a social good at any cost, while simultaneously highlighting that that cost included “bad people” doing “bad things”, including the global dissemination of child sexual abuse material. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, alongside her Australian and American counterparts, responded by calling on Facebook to allow lawful access to encrypted services, which resulted in a ferocious backlash about government access to personal data. In reality, existing detection services, such as PhotoDNA, do not challenge user privacy since they identify only known images and do not require a back door. Conflating issues of privacy or security with the protection of child sexual abuse victims makes vulnerable children collateral damage in an information war between commercial entities and Governments. Are the Government willing to mandate that end-to-end encryption be deployed in a manner that allows detection of CSAM, independently and transparently assessed, with no accompanying requirement for a back door to encrypted services?
Finally, last week the Government reaffirmed that they will shortly lay the age-appropriate design code before Parliament. I look forward to that, but ask that we swiftly adopt Article 80(2) of the GDPR, so that civil society can act on behalf of vulnerable groups. We asked for this during the passage of the Data Protection Act and were told it would be reviewed. Perhaps the Minister can provide an update on its status.